Session #100: The Return of Porter

A pint of stout (illustration).

It’s the 100th beer blogging session, hosted by Reuben Gray, on the subject of ‘resurrecting lost beer styles’.

Though he has asked for peo­ple to think specif­i­cal­ly about the last ten years, and to choose ‘an obscure style you don’t find in very many places’, we could­n’t resist get­ting his­tor­i­cal and look­ing at what was arguably the first such res­ur­rec­tion of the mod­ern era: Porter.

In the mid-1970s, it had become extinct, hav­ing been hard to find for some decades before that, but was brought back to life by one of the first of the new band of what lat­er came to be known as micro­brew­eries. Because the 100th Ses­sion is a spe­cial occa­sion, and with the kind per­mis­sion of our pub­lish­ers, Aurum Press, we’ve decid­ed to share a slight­ly edit­ed extract from chap­ter four of our book Brew Bri­tan­nia that tells the sto­ry.

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Anoth­er sign that the ‘real ale rev­o­lu­tion’ was seri­ous­ly under way appeared with the arrival, also in 1977, of Britain’s first celebri­ty brew­ery. It was fore­shad­owed by the rev­e­la­tion, in the pre­vi­ous year, that two of Britain’s best-known enter­tain­ers, even then on the path to becom­ing ‘nation­al trea­sures’, were real-ale devo­tees:

Two men who think that real ale is Some­thing Com­plete­ly Dif­fer­ent are stal­wart Mon­ty Python writ­ers and actors Ter­ry Jones and Michael Palin … The busy pair … are lovers of tra­di­tion­al beer and always car­ry the Good Beer Guide with them … It is a much-thumbed doc­u­ment, for loca­tion shoot­ing takes the team to some obscure parts of the coun­try.

This should not have come as a sur­prise to any­one who had seen Palin in the famous 1974 ‘trav­el agent’ sketch in Mon­ty Python’s Fly­ing Cir­cus, in which Eric Idle deliv­ers a rant­i­ng mono­logue with repeat­ed dis­parag­ing ref­er­ences to Watney’s Red Bar­rel. Of the two, Ter­ry Jones was the more enthu­si­as­tic about beer. When his accoun­tant, Michael Hen­shaw, intro­duced him to anoth­er of his clients, Richard Boston, they entered into part­ner­ship on two projects. First, an ‘alter­na­tive’ mag­a­zine, The Vole, to be edit­ed by Boston; and sec­ond, a brew­ery, which they ini­tial­ly intend­ed to open in Berk­shire. Boston announced the project in What’s Brew­ing in Jan­u­ary 1977:

There are a num­ber of free hous­es in the area that might take our beer. We have found a farm­house with sheds that could be con­vert­ed into a brew­ery … We have got the cap­i­tal and the place – all we need is a dis­sat­is­fied brew­er work­ing for some anony­mous com­bine who would like to run and plan his own busi­ness, explore retail out­lets and work with us to see if the scheme is viable.

[Peter Austin] saw Boston’s cry for help and aban­doned a fail­ing sea-angling busi­ness in Hamp­shire to design and build a brew­ery. By this time, Ter­ry Jones had become acquaint­ed with busi­ness­man Mar­tin Grif­fiths, who in 1972 had bought a ram­shackle medieval farm­house, Pen­rhos Court in Here­ford­shire, for £5,000 and turned it into a suc­cess­ful restau­rant. The plan to brew in Berk­shire was aban­doned, and Austin was set to work in the farm build­ings at the back of the prop­er­ty.

I remem­ber the first brew very well. It was five o’clock one morn­ing with bats fly­ing about as we got up. It was the last pos­si­ble day for brew­ing because the grand open­ing had to be before Ter­ry Jones went to Amer­i­ca … We got the mash in at six. The plumbers were ahead of us con­nect­ing up the next ves­sel. By 8 a.m. we were in the cop­per – it took hours to get it to boil … It was a twen­ty-hour marathon in all, but we did it.

The brew­ery was offi­cial­ly opened on Sat­ur­day, 16 July 1977, with Michael Palin, a com­pul­sive diarist with an eye for detail, in atten­dance.

At Here­ford Sta­tion by one. A minibus dri­ves us to Pen­rhos Court … The beer is tast­ed and found to be good. Jones’ First Ale it’s called – and at a spe­cif­ic grav­i­ty of 1050 it’s about as dev­as­tat­ing as Abbot Ale. But the weath­er has decid­ed to be kind to us and the col­lec­tion of build­ings that is Pen­rhos Court – basi­cal­ly a fine, but run-down six­teenth-cen­tu­ry manor house with out­build­ings hous­ing the brew­ery, restau­rant and Mar­tin Grif­fiths’ office and liv­ing accom­mo­da­tion – look well in the sun­shine and pro­vide a very amenable back­ground to the seri­ous beer-drink­ing.

Jones’s pri­ma­ry con­tri­bu­tion seems to have been pub­lic­i­ty. He opened the 1977 CAMRA Great British Beer Fes­ti­val at Alexan­dra Palace. In his open­ing address, he said that beer shouldn’t be tast­ed, like wine, before dump­ing six pints of beer over his own head. This ‘show­ing off’ won cov­er­age in sev­er­al news­pa­pers and a front-page pho­to in What’s Brew­ing. Jones, a glob­al­ly renowned film direc­tor and come­di­an, was by far the hippest celebri­ty to lend his name to the Cam­paign: sub­se­quent fes­ti­vals were opened, with rather less glam­our, by Labour min­is­ter Roy Hat­ter­s­ley and TV nat­u­ral­ist David Bel­lamy.

Jones seems to have spent much of this peri­od wear­ing a Pen­rhos Ale brand­ed sweat­shirt, and, by 1978, it had paid off, and he declared the brew­ery a suc­cess: ‘It can’t be all that bad … After all, we’ve only been going for six months and already four­teen pubs are buy­ing the stuff from us. And sell­ing it.’

Pen­rhos wasn’t just a bit of celebri­ty dab­bling, though. For one thing, it gave Peter Austin the oppor­tu­ni­ty to test him­self before build­ing not only his own brew­ery, Ring­wood, in 1978, but also many more in Britain and around the world. For anoth­er, it was the first brew­ery to revive a type of beer which had last been brewed in 1973 – porter, the dark beer upon which British brew­ing dynas­ties had been estab­lished in the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry and from which stout was descend­ed. Being extinct gave porter a cer­tain mys­tique, and its very name evoked a roman­tic image of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry at a time when books such as Kel­low Chesney’s The Vic­to­ri­an Under­world were best-sell­ers.

Porter also offered some­thing dif­fer­ent – it was black and robust when, back then, most ‘real ale’ was brown bit­ter. Penrhos’s ‘dark, pleas­ant’ exam­ple was the sur­prise hit of the 1978 Great British Beer Fes­ti­val, and was soon fol­lowed by a much sweet­er ver­sion by Tim­o­thy Tay­lor of Keigh­ley in York­shire, based on an 1873 recipe. When a cask of that went on sale at the Eagle, the CAMRA Real Ale Invest­ments pub in Leeds, it sold out in less than three days. The excite­ment with which these unusu­al beers were greet­ed sig­nalled a long, slow return to diver­si­ty in British brew­ing.

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Brew Britannia (cover)

…an exhil­a­rat­ing read…” Roger Protz
“…a stun­ning book…” Craft Beer Chan­nel

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